INDYCAR’s past, present and future fuse on Andretti’s 1993 anniversary celebration in Phoenix

INDYCAR’s past, present and future fuse on Andretti’s 1993 anniversary celebration in Phoenix

By Tony DiZinno

The gap between the IndyCar of 1993, when Mario Andretti captured his 52nd and final checkered flag at Phoenix International Raceway, and the IndyCar of 2018 is as wide as the miles per hour gap between the fastest and slowest qualifiers that year at what was then PIR. Scott Goodyear at 172.804 mph (20.833 seconds) was almost 26 mph and 3.6 seconds quicker than Ross Bentley at 146.968 mph (24.495 seconds).

Such massive gaps don’t exist in the modern day Verizon IndyCar Series. It’s a sign of the sport’s evolution that the team Bentley drove for then – Dale Coyne Racing – enters this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix at the renamed ISM Raceway looking for its second straight victory to open the 2018 campaign. Sebastien Bourdais won the St. Petersburg opener in the newly rebranded Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan No. 18 Team Sealmaster Honda.  

Andretti didn’t win the pole for his final race victory – he missed it by just 0.062 of a second as Goodyear scored his first ever pole – but the memories of that day are the backdrop to set up the story of how IndyCar has evolved since. 

“I think in so many ways it’s better because you have a much more level playing field right now because of the rules and the way things have evolved over the years,” Andretti explained during a teleconference on Wednesday. “I think obviously technology has taken over, and we’re right up to date with everything. From that standpoint, you know, we’re where we need to be, where we’re expected to be.

“Again, I think the biggest thing that you see, in my opinion, is that plus the fact today the way the rules are, the way the engines are supposed to be, last at least a couple thousand miles, you don’t have that attrition that we used to have in those years. Almost every race you have 99 percent of the field finishing. You have a lot more action throughout the races any more right to the end.

“If anything, I think things are better today.”

Today, April 4, 2018, marks 25 years to the day of Andretti’s last IndyCar win. And boy, have times changed. 

Mario Andretti and long-time team owner Paul Newman (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

Attrition very much told the story of Andretti’s final win, on a day he trailed the dominant Team Penske cars before they both crashed from the lead.

Paul Tracy took the lead from Andretti on Lap 11, and led until Lap 161 when he crashed in Turns 1 and 2 trying to lap Jimmy Vasser on the inside. It cost the Canadian, now an NBCSN IndyCar race analyst, his first career victory when he had nearly a two-lap lead on the field.

Vasser, who scored his first career IndyCar podium that day in third place driving for Jim Hayhoe, was quick to defend himself.

“I was involved in the Tracy crash. I recently watched a video as I know you can do with all the Twitter guys that put things up,” Vasser laughed. 

“I remember both Tracy and Roger kind of blaming me on national TV. I was a young buck just coming in. It wasn’t even my first full season. I had done a few races the year before as a rookie. I was kind of embarrassed they would call me out, that I caused the wreck.

“I look back at the video now. It was completely Tracy’s fault. He had a two-lap lead on just about everybody, had plenty of room down there, kind of lost it. Like Mario said, Emerson crashed out on the restart basically. I think he cut a tire in the debris from Tracy’s crash. He crashed upper turn three right after the restart.

“Like Mario said, the guys are okay, but it was a gift to me as well.”

As Vasser noted, after Tracy crashed, then Emerson Fittipaldi crashed after inheriting the lead. Andretti regained the top spot on Lap 172, and he wouldn’t relinquish it for the rest of the Valvoline 200.

“Jimmy and I felt bad for about a minute,” Andretti deadpanned.

Andretti won by one lap over Raul Boesel, with Vasser third, three laps down, ahead of Al Unser Jr. and Teo Fabi. 

Only 13 of the 25 starters finished the race, and the final classified finisher, Lyn St. James, was 21 laps down. 

A couple reports this week have noted the peculiar dilemma – or opportunity, depending on how you look at it – that IndyCar faces heading into this weekend’s race at Phoenix. 

Andretti’s 1993 win is getting its proper due in a celebration of one of the sport’s greatest ever drivers. The track and the series have both gone out of their way to promote it heavily. A special event in downtown Phoenix will honor Andretti on Thursday night, and further activities will follow throughout the weekend at the track. 

Grandson Marco Andretti will even race in a tribute livery, his No. 98 Oberto Honda for Andretti-Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian set to run in the same colors as Andretti’s iconic black-and-white Texaco colors on his No. 6 Newman/Haas Racing Lola-Ford from 1993. He’ll wear the traditional Andretti helmet colors, as well.

Yet the conundrum for IndyCar now is wondering who’s at that same level of “face of IndyCar” as the senior Andretti, now 78, still is some 24 years after his retirement.

For Andretti, who watched a similar evolution of talent take place after his retirement in 1994 – Vasser was the 1996 CART champion, for instance, while others such as Alex Zanardi, Gil de Ferran, Helio Castroneves and the late Greg Moore, among others, began to establish themselves – IndyCar’s opportunity to see its current generation of stars blossom before our eyes is right there for the taking. It’s made easier, of course, by the fact the series has been unified for 10 years since 2008, after the divisive split from 1996 through 2007.

“When you see the cycle of new talent coming on, it’s something extremely positive,” Andretti said. “But let’s remember that the so-called veterans in INDYCAR right now are still very young. That’s what I think makes the series so very rich, in my opinion. I always keep saying, when you have the product, then I think you can feel very positive for the future.

“I think INDYCAR is exactly at that point right now. I think the strength of the teams that you have in place, seeing that you have teams — I mean, there’s no weakness out there. Some are considered smaller teams, in the past, they didn’t seem like they had a chance of winning, but we’ve seen it different just starting with St. Pete. With the new car, all of a sudden, I mean, we’ve seen rookies showing the way.

“As far as the new talent that’s coming on, they’re already making their mark, they’re making their noise. It’s something that just has to happen and they have to earn it. When these guys are up front, their names are going to be mentioned over and over. That’s how you develop the personality. You can spin this thing until the cows come home, but at the same time, it’s all about being up there and getting some results.

“I think the series has really begun to do a really good job of exposing our guys. I’ve seen even after the championship with Josef Newgarden how much time he spent on the road, how much visibility he’s been getting in the off-season. All this needs to be done so the fans can start really gravitating to their favorite driver. That’s how you build a solid fan base.

“As you know, INDYCAR had to do a lot of reconstruction after the disaster of the mid-90s. It’s in a good path right now. I personally feel very positive that a lot of the good things that need to be done are being done right now.”

Vasser, who grew from the aforementioned “young buck” into a championship-winning driver and Indianapolis 500-winning car owner, said the social media savvy some of the younger drivers have now will help grow their popularity. Both he and Andretti also noted IndyCar’s new TV contract solely on NBC Sports, set to begin in 2019, should help.

“I would echo everything he says,” Vasser said. “In addition, I think the new television contract starting in ’19, on one network. These young drivers nowadays are so into social media, and they’re not shy. These guys are out there producing their own short films about themselves. I think that’s great. They’re very articulate, very talented, fast.

“You’ve got a good mix of foreign drivers with more Americans now I think that there has been in a long time, which was something that people would always kind of be a point of discussion, was the lack of Americans. That’s not the case.”

The gap between the past, present, and future will also reveal itself at ISM Raceway this weekend. The 2018 race is the last in INDYCAR’s initial three-year contract with the track, and it’s also the last where the start/finish line will be on the front straight before the continuation of the track’s construction project will see it moved to what is currently the exit of Turn 2.

What hasn’t changed? The challenge of racing on a one-mile oval itself, which Andretti and Vasser both outlined.

“Phoenix is a real tough place, so you just never know what you’re going to get,” Vasser said.

Andretti added, “Let’s face it, Phoenix is probably one of the toughest ovals because it’s so fast. We’ve seen with some of the changes they made to accommodate the stock cars, it made it even faster than what we experienced. That means the faster the corner in speed, the tougher it is to have any passing.

“These drivers today, obviously if they can master Phoenix, you’re going to master any of the other ovals. Quite honestly, I think Phoenix would be more difficult to drive than Indianapolis. Again, you can measure yourself your own way by how you feel, how comfortable you feel, if you have your arms around it right here in Phoenix.”

Andretti also made the important point of how critical Phoenix has been to his entire career.

“When I start looking back at how meaningful Phoenix was to my career, I said it a few times, but the team that I was fortunate to join as a rookie in 1964 was based right there in Phoenix, on 7th and Glendale. Clint Brawner, of course, was a Phoenix native, and Jim McGee. At that time we were part of the Firestone development group. We were the Firestone teams during the so-called Tire War with Goodyear. There was a tremendous amount of development going on. Because of the weather, of course, off-season, Phoenix, that was the theater for us to be at.

“I used to spend weeks and weeks at a time testing. Again, I was able to really put that to my most advantage as far as honing my skills on the ovals and so forth. Started with the roadster in ’64, of course moved on to the rear engine.

‘Again, you can see the span. I was there for 30 years as a driver, as an active driver. Phoenix as a track was probably one of the most important parts of my career, quite honestly.”

What comes next? Andretti, true to form, will appreciate and soak up the moments that Phoenix and IndyCar will provide for him this weekend. 

“I mean, I’m humbled and totally flattered, I assure you. It’s so incredible that the whole promotion for this race surrounds something that happened 25 years ago,” he said.

At the same time, ever the optimist, Andretti remains bullish about the series’ future as a whole and doesn’t want the past to dominate the discussion.

“It’s very simple. Come visit us and see what we’re all about, and I think you’re going to like it.”

There might be a big celebration for Mario Andretti this weekend, but that won’t stop him from doing what he loves most. Driving a race car. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)